McNairy County’s Boogeyman

Halloween is less than a week away–fear the ghost of Fielding Hurst!

BOO!

The front page of yesterday’s McNairy County Independent Appeal had an article by Russell Ingle entitled “Ghosts of Purdy.” It’s a seasonal piece that ties Halloween with stories of ghosts supposedly haunting the home of Fielding Hurst and the Purdy Cemetery a short distance across the road.

Unfortunately, it’s also another example of sensationalizing history for the sake of an entertaining story and not getting the facts straight.

I don’t blame Mr. Ingle. I’m sure he just wanted to write an interesting story and share with readers what he had learned about one of McNairy County’s most notorious figures. I’ve had close to 15 years to learn what I know about Hurst and the Sixth Tennessee Cavalry, so I can’t fault someone who may have only had a few days or weeks to research the subject.

There’s a lot of exaggerated and downright false information when it comes to Fielding Hurst and the Sixth Tennessee. One must trudge through period and modern-day partisan or erroneous writings to discover what is actually true. Much of them can be attributed to former Confederate soldiers, but some are more contemporary and simply expound and exaggerate from a one-sided (i.e. Confederate) point of view.

One hundred twenty-six years after his death, Fielding Hurst remains a despised man among descendants of the Confederacy in southwest Tennessee. It’s a hatred that’s been passed down from their great-great granddaddies who fought against him or felt his wrath or that of his men. I’ve heard stories of family members who were never seen again, their disappearances blamed on Hurst and his command. There are many people who have genuine reasons for their feelings against him.

Fielding Hurst has become the Boogeyman of McNairy County, Tennessee. He is a “monster” and a “demon”and his insidious reputation grows more brutal and bloodier with the passage of time. His evil deeds are magnified and sensationalized for dramatic effect to the point of absurdity. I’ve often thought someone should write a novel with Hurst as a central character because the stories that are considered truth already border on imaginative fiction.

I was contacted this week by someone who asked if it was true that Hurst “murdered and dismembered people and was possibly murdered himself. He cut off people’s heads and lined them up in his yard.” I repeat this not to make fun because the person only wanted to know if the accusations were true. Yet it shows how ridiculous the crimes attributed to Hurst have become. Such lies make Hurst sound like the Civil War’s answer to Vlad the Impailer, a.k.a. Dracula.

Probably the most common source used by writers is an article published in the Confederate Veteran (March-April 1992, p. 20-23) entitled “Hurst!” by W.Clay Crook. It’s available online and pops up on most every search for Fielding Hurst. Mr. Crook writes a well-worded story and turns prose with the best of them. It reads as an authoritative account of Hurst and many writers rely on its accuracy. Unfortunately, it suffers from a few factual errors and Mr. Crook gives no documentation to back up some of his assertions.

Mr. Crook writes:

“When the price of human misery and destruction is subtracted from war, little is actually left of the glory we so often admire in battle. It is true, however, that there are some who have tarnished the art of warfare more thoroughly than others. The Romans had Attila the Hun. Northwestern Europe, the Vikings … but old families in West Tennessee spit forth one invective — like acid from a shattered battery — Hurst!”

Hurst’s legend grows more with each writer’s take on his dastardly misdoings. Crook thought him worse than Atilla the Hunn, the Vikings, and Wiliam Tecumseh Sherman. Now Russell Ingle elevates his sinister stature to that of Adolf Hitler!

Mr. Ingle writes:

According to legend, Hurst said he was driven by divine mandate to cleanse the land of Rebels. Just like Hitler slaughtered the Jews, Hurst spread a bloody trail and left mutilated bodies wherever he traveled. The story is told how, on a patrol to LaGrange, Hurst carried with him a band of Confederate prisoners and, at every mile post, killed one, cut their head off and hung it on a post.

Granted, Hurst was guilty of many things from extortion and arson to executing Confederate soldiers and guerrillas. Murders of soldiers and civilians off the battlefield and on the home front, though committed by men under his command, were still his responsibility.

But in no way did his actions compare to the Holocaust and the death of approximately six million Jews in concentration camps, innocent victims who were persecuted because of Hitler’s prejudice against their people. They were not at war with Hitler and his armies, yet they were systematically killed because of their race.

Hurst’s so-called “mandate to cleanse the land of Rebels” makes him out to be a twisted and demented evangelist with an unquenchable thirst for Rebel blood, male, female, and child alike. This line was taken from Crook, who dramatically evoked the Bible with this verse: “Hurst himself felt driven by divine mandate to slay the Philistines (meaning “neighbors who tended to disagree” with him), cleanse the land of rebels and like Joshua before him, to spare not even the ox nor its manger.”

There’s no question Hurst detested those he and other Unionists labeled as “Secesh,” or the proponents of secession. He sought to avenge the persecution against he and his family from his rebel neighbors and the Confederacy as a whole. But to say he gave himself a “mandate” is unfounded and undocumented. It makes for good reading, but it’s simply not true.

The particulars of the executions of Captain John Ambrose “Dock” Wharton and four other Confederate soldiers have long been embellished. So what really happened?

Here’s the real story: It took place not at LaGrange but on the road between Purdy and Pocahontas, Tennessee. Hurst believed Wharton and his men were guerrillas and not Confederate soldiers and that Wharton had threatened to take his life. After a gun battle during which Wharton was wounded, he was taken to Hurst who vowed to end Wharton’s life instead. They were executed and left beside the road. At least one of the men, Thomas W.S. Morgan, was wounded and left for dead; nearby residents tended to him as best they could before he died.

There is only one authoritative source that I’ve found for the incident, a letter dated July 23, 1863 written by Dew M. Wisdom to Col. Philip D. Roddey. In it, Wisdom relates the incident but makes no mention of the soldiers’ bodies buried as mile posts, much less decapitated and hung on posts.

So where did the decapitation claim come from? Crook attributes it to G. Tillman Stewart, late historian of Henderson County. I’ve not found it in any other source materials. Because there is no evidence to prove it, it must be assumed that the decapitation version is false. The worst part is, when these distorted tales are published in books and newspapers and spread across the Internet, they become facts for those without the inclination to dig deeper. They are often accepted at face value and reprinted over and over again.

*****

I’m sure I sound like I’m defending the actions of Fielding Hurst, but it’s really not the case. All I ask is that anyone who writes about him be objective and not completely believe everything they’ve read about him, particularly what’s available on the Internet. To embellish and exaggerate what he did for the sake of a good story distorts the facts and is dishonest to the reader.

(Parts of this post were written tongue-in-cheek to accentuate the dramatic prose used by some writers to describe Fielding Hurst and what he did.)

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